Dealing with Death: MPs reflect on the end of life

The Liberal government's physician-assisted dying legislation has hit a nerve with parliamentarians in a way few bills have in the recent past. CBC News interviewed nine MPs and asked them to reflect on the bill, their personal experiences with death and palliative care. The interviews are shockingly honest and largely devoid of political sniping.

'This is probably the most challenging issue this Parliament will face, and it's facing it early'

CBC News interviewed nine politicians from across the political spectrum and asked them to reflect on the assisted dying legislation, their personal experiences with death and palliative care. 2:31

The Liberal government's physician-assisted dying legislation has hit a nerve with parliamentarians in a way few other bills have in the recent past.

Bill C-14, which must pass Parliament by June 6 to meet the Supreme Court's deadline, has forced politicians to deal with what is still a taboo topic: death. They will also have to face some tough questions: What do they want for themselves, or their loved ones, when facing an irremediable condition?

All parties have agreed this will be a free vote: MPs will not be whipped to vote along party lines. In theory, there could be considerable variance as to how MPs across the political spectrum will cast their votes.

Some feel the legislation goes too far, with too few protections for the vulnerable. Others have argued it will make it too difficult for people with painful, debilitating illnesses to end their lives on their own terms. And others argue it fails because it does not address the suffering of "mature" minors, the mentally ill or those facing degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

CBC News interviewed nine politicians from the three major parties and asked them to reflect on the legislation, their own experiences with mortality and palliative care.

The cut and thrust of Parliament Hill rarely allows them to share what motivates them to vote for or against a particular bill.

The sometimes emotional interviews are largely devoid of political sniping. They are open, honest and forthcoming. Watch the full interviews below.

Charlie Angus, NDP MP

Full interview with Charlie Angus 7:29

"I struggle with the bill but I believe we are much better having a bill and having a bill that has some rules and having something that people can look at, than if Parliament doesn't do its duty by June," the Timmins–James Bay MP said.

But he said physician-assisted death shouldn't be the government's only concern. 

"We're focused on the right to die and that always includes a very few cases often in very extreme circumstances and they're always tragic and heartbreaking. But people are dying every day in this country, in heartbreaking circumstances because of the lack of proper palliative care services. What disturbs me is that ... there isn't the similar sense of urgency in ensuring that people have access to proper palliative care."

Michael Cooper, Conservative MP

Full interview with Michael Cooper 4:19

"People who have strong views on this, and there are many, often have those strong views based upon their own individual experiences and it's important that we listen to those individual experiences, but at the same time we need to take a step back and look at the big picture in the most objective way as possible," the Alberta Conservative MP said.

Nathan Cullen, NDP MP

Full interview with Nathan Cullen 8:20

"Every once in awhile an issue comes along where the personal is important. There should be an attempt by all of us to check in with our own values, our own spirituality and our own morality — and bring that with the science and our intelligence and make a decision," the Northern B.C. MP said. 

"There's a real vulnerability required to be completely truthful and courageous with people and say, 'these are my feelings, my best thoughts, what do you think?' And not to play politics with it, not to score points, to simply be a bunch of people, which is what 338 people in the House of Commons are trying, to craft a very difficult bit of legislation."

Patty Hajdu, minister for the status of women

Full interview with Patty Hajdu 5:41

"This is an intensely personal issue and of course all Canadians are connected to this issue because at some point all of us will die," the Liberal cabinet minister said. "Many of us have experienced loved ones who have died. It's so personal, intimate and emotional.

"My aunt was actually passing away when I was first elected and I went through her death, she had been ill for a long time and progressively declining, and for me it was a collision course ... I had a loved one struggle at the end stages of life," just as the government was crafting this legislation.

Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Liberal MP

Full interview with Robert-Falcon Ouellette 8:33

"My concern is that we should really take our time to do this properly, to make sure we are setting up structures in society that are able to make sure that young people ... don't see suicide as being valued now, as a valorisation of suicide in some way — that if an elder decides to kill themselves and they are the strong person in the family and the community but they couldn't handle it, why should they continue on in life?"

Erin O'Toole, Conservative MP

Ontario Conservative MP talks about doctor-assisted dying legislation. 4:36

"This is probably the most challenging issue this Parliament will face, and it's facing it early. It's unique in that there's compassion on both sides. I understand the compassion that people that have serious reservations have; I also understand the compassion that the families, like the Carter family, have. That makes it a particularly difficult subject," the Conservative MP for Durham, Ont. said.

Michelle Rempel, Conservative MP

Full interview with Michelle Rempel 12:59

"Everybody has a personal experience in this situation. I do. I have a very personal situation with this, but for legislative responses to issues like this, I think we have to be very careful as parliamentarians ... to let your personal feelings, your sense of rightness and wrongness, to be a context — but it can't be the only thing," the Calgary Conservative MP said. 

"You have to look at the legislation that's in front of you, you have to listen to all viewpoints on an issue, you have to evaluate what's in front of you on its merits, you have to push back and try and make it better. That's my responsibility."

Adam Vaughan, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister

Toronto Liberal MP talks about doctor-assisted dying, and his mother's struggle with her own health issues. 9:13

"When parliament gets difficult decisions it expects lawmakers to land perfectly, with perfect legislation, which answers every question immediately and forever more," the Toronto-area MP said. 

"This is an issue that we will be revisiting as long as we're alive and we will be trying to make it better as long as we're alive and I don't think we're going to get it perfectly perfect this time."

Arif Virani, parliamentary secretary to the minister of immigration

Toronto Liberal MP, and former constitutional lawyer, talks about doctor-assisted dying, a very sensitive piece of legislation. 6:43

"I see that from my personal lens, but also from a professional lens. I practiced charter litigation for 14 years, I understand the intense necessity of protecting people's charter rights, but I think the issue is beyond charter rights. I think it's a moral and ethical dilemma for a number of us who are trying to do the best for our constituents and do right by our own principles and our own (conscience)."

Subscribe to receive our evening digest of CBC Politics stories by email